Snow shoveling can raise the risk of heart attack in some people.

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Can shoveling snow cause a heart attack?

  • Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S. for men and women. Heavy lifting in cold weather may increase your risk.

If you've lived in Minnesota, you've likely heard about someone having a heart attack while shoveling snow. It may even be the excuse your significant other has been using to avoid helping dig out after a snowstorm. But can shoveling increase the risk of heart attack? For some people, it can.

How cold weather affects your heart

When it’s cold, your blood vessels become narrow to keep you warm. With less space for blood to flow, your heart works harder to keep blood moving through the vessels, which leads to higher blood pressure. Your coronary arteries, which give the heart muscle blood and oxygen, can also narrow in the cold.

The combination of high blood pressure and narrowed arteries can increase your risk of a heart event if you have underlying heart disease.

How a heart attack can happen

The unique scooping-lifting-throwing motion engages muscle groups in both the upper and lower body. Lifting and throwing heavy loads of snow requires a level of effort that can quickly raise your blood pressure, especially in cold weather.

A healthy person's heart responds by beating harder and faster to supply the heart with extra oxygen. For people with coronary artery disease, blockages in the coronary vessels can restrict blood flow, preventing the heart from getting the oxygen it needs.

Limited blood flow to the heart muscle can lead to chest pain, shortness of breath, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) or even a heart attack.

Heart attack risk factors

Talk with your doctor before shoveling snow if you have any of these risk factors:

  • prior heart attack or known heart disease
  • high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • tobacco use
  • inactive, sedentary lifestyle

Reducing risk of heart attack while shoveling

Shoveling is sudden, intense exercise. If you're healthy enough to shovel snow, follow these tips to reduce the risk of heart attack.

If this is your first real exercise in months, go slow and take breaks.

  • Avoid shoveling right after you wake up, as many heart attacks occur early in the morning.
  • Don't shovel right after a heavy meal.
  • Warm up gradually for at least five to 10 minutes.
  • Keep breathing evenly; don't hold your breath as you lift snow.
  • Use a small shovel or scoop smaller amounts of snow.
  • When you're done, walk it off to cool down.

Warning signs of a heart attack

Warning signs of a heart attack include:

  • chest pain or pressure that can extend to the arms, back, neck or jaw
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness or nausea

While chest discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack, this may not always be present, particularly in women. Women are more likely to have other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

If you experience any of these symptoms while shoveling snow—or anytime—call 911 or head to your nearest emergency room.

Heart care for every beat

Everyone’s heart is unique. Talk with your primary care provider if you’re at risk or have a family history of heart disease. They may recommend seeing a cardiologist to assess your risk. Your provider can also create a personalized heart care plan for your needs.

 

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